David Brooks wrote an incredibly (fill in the blank) _____________ column the other day advocating joint checking accounts as a way to ensure that the human race survives the next Martian attack, or something.
I'm not sure. It's hard to say. It's not clear that Brooks even knows what he's saying. Matt Yglesias captures the muddledheaded flavor of Brooks' writing these days.
The man thinks. . . well, it's hard to say exactly what he thinks, but it's something about married couples maintaining independent checking accounts. He thinks that's a bad thing. But he doesn't deny that under some circumstances, it could be a good thing. He just thinks it would be a bad thing if this became the normal procedure -- i.e., the one most people use. But he doesn't try to go down the list to calculate whether the considerations that make separate accounts a good idea for some people do or do not apply to most couples, or are or are not likely to apply to most future couples. So it's a bit puzzling. He also doesn't think people should be forced to maintain unified accounts. He just thinks they should be discouraged in some unspecified way.
All of Brooks' columns suffer from an on this hand/on that hand woolyness. It's what happens when you try to maintain your reputation as a open-minded, reasonable although conservative thinker while simultaneously writing propaganda for a pack of Right wing zealots. They're mutually contradictory exercises.
It's like Bertie Wooster says about the aspiring fascist dictator Spode who it turns out runs a lingerie shop on the side.
Jeeves: Mr Spode designs ladies' underclothing, sir. He has a considerable talent in that direction, and has indulged it secretly for some years. He is the founder and proprietor of the emporium in Bond Street known as Eulalie Soeurs.
Bertie: You don't mean that?
Jeeves: Yes, sir.
Bertie: Good Lord, Jeeves! No wonder he didn't want the thing to come out.
Jeeves: No, sir. It would unquestionably jeopardize his authority over his followers.
Bertie: You can't be a successful Dictator and design women's underclothing.
Jeeves: No, sir.
Bertie: One or the other, but not both.
Jeeves: Precisely, sir.
You can't be a good writer and shill for a gang of ideological thugs. One or the other, but not both.
What's clear though is that Brooks thinks that the basis of a happy marriage is an abjection of ego, particularly on the part of uppity wives who want to keep control of the money they earn.
Brooks' teacher in the ways of blissful conjugality is...
Tolstoy's story captures the difference between romantic happiness, which is filled with exhilaration and self-fulfillment, and family happiness, built on self-abnegation and sacrifice.
The story he's referring to is Family Happiness.
This is a story in which the young wife narrating the tale of her marriage realizes that she has lost her husband's interest and affection, deservedly, through trying to enjoy herself in life and then concludes, with a shrug, well, it's ok, at least she has the kids and the grocery shopping to make her happy again.
That day ended the romance of our marriage; the old feeling became a precious irrecoverable remembrance; but a new feeling of love for my children and the father of my children laid the foundation of a new life and a quite different happiness; and that life and happiness have lasted to the present time.
I have never met a woman who has read War and Peace who wasn't appalled by what Tolstoy does to his smart and vivacious heroine Natasha at the end of the novel. I haven't met any man who's read Anna Karenina who doesn't think the Kitty-Levin subplot is insipid and a waste of time and who wouldn't rather be married to an cuckolding Anna than to the vaccouous and docile like an over-affectionate puppy is docile Kitty.
(Of course I haven't met a man who isn't convinced that if he was married to an Anna she wouldn't have reason to look twice at any Vronksys swaggering by.)
The Kreuzter Sonata was the single most misogynistic piece of writing in the Western Canon before Hemingway sweated out The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber after waking up in the middle of the night screaming from yet another feverish nightmare in which his mother came at him with a meat cleaver
Brooks wants us to take advice on a how to live happily ever after from the author of The Kreutzer Sonata?
Tolstoy's ideas on family happiness aren't a recipee for a happy marriage. They were a recipee for a very unhappy Mrs Tolstoy.
This is so intrinsic to both Tolstoy's work and his biography that I wondered if Brooks had actually read anything by him. I've always suspected that despite the way conservatives tout for The Great Books and push to have college literature courses teach them to the exclusion of all else, they themselves have never actually read any of The Great Books and don't want to. I think this because I believe that if they had read those books and absorbed their lessons they wouldn't be conservatives.
Wishful thinking, I suppose. Education rarely trumps vanity and self-interest, even in liberal academics.
But I was thinking that Brooks couldn't have read even the story he quotes from. I figured he has a well-thumbed edition of Bartlett's on his desk and he had flipped to the index and looked for quotes that included the words "family" and "happiness."
Then I remembered the time in Doonesbury when Trip Trippler went to work for George Will as a quote boy. (And liberal admirers of Brooks who keep asking ruefully what happened to Brooks' writing skills should re-read some of Will's books. I think Brooks is trying to rewrite Wills' old columns from memory and he needs to take more ginseng tablets.) Maybe, I thought, Brooks has a quote boy celebrating his last day on the job by playing a practical joke.
Hee hee. Mr Brooks thinks I'm giving him a quote that supports his argument. He's also writing a column on humility and I'm going to slip him this great quote from Nietzsche.
Family Happiness is a great story---and very interesting to read in conjunction with Chekhov's better story The Party. Chekhov was a highly critical admirer of Tolstoy.---but its basic message on the subject of marriage is the same as in all of Tolstoy's work: Intellectually and sexually independent women are scary as all get out and the key to happiness for a man is to marry a doll.
I couldn't believe that Brooks would honestly think that using a story by Tolstoy as an example would be persuasive to an audience of 21st Century readers, particularly his female readers.
But Amanda Marcotte at Mouse Words set me straight. She's got Brooks' number. Marital happiness isn't Brooks' concern. The happiness of men is. Brooks, she says, "is a firm Victorian, completely convinced that a man's life is empty without the rustle of petticoats in his home, soothing the tired brain after a day of man-work."
What Brooks wants, Amanda says, is to bring back the Victorian idea of The Angel of the House. Victorian men insisted that
...there were two realms, the private/feminine one and the public/masculine one, and that women were to be relegated to the private one with their main duty to be subservient to men and make the home pleasant for men who were doing the hard, manly work in the public realm. Brooks avoids using gender-specific terms in this paragraph, but the fact that the only examples he uses of spouses who are too fond of their independence are wives makes it clear who he thinks has the duty of sacrificing for the private realm.